The route of the proposed Southern Connector around Martinsville. Courtesy of VDOT.

In Southwest Virginia, support for the Coalfields Expressway is practically an article of faith among the political and business class. The Virginia portion of the road is somewhat mythical – there’s some dirt being moved around Grundy but there’s no real funding for the full road as envisioned. Still, the road that would go through Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties remains a major talking point, with studies marshaled to show what it would mean for the region economically.

Now a similar group of legislators and business leaders is trying to raise the profile of – and make a new push for – a proposed road through Henry County that they believe is essential to the region’s economic health. This is the so-called Southern Connector that would effectively be a western bypass around Martinsville and, in the eyes of advocates, connect U.S. 220 around that city to U.S. 220 in North Carolina with a better, straighter road than is there presently. (Virginia seems to have given up on the idea of building Interstate 73, which would have paralleled U.S. 220 and connected I-81 at Roanoke with I-73 in North Carolina. Some of the initial money for I-73 was moved a few years ago to help plan the Southern Connector).

This week, a delegation will meet with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s secretary of transportation, Sheppard Miller, to make their case for the road. As with many things, there are two ways to view this road: Either it’s an economic necessity, or it’s a boondoggle and an environmental disaster. How you view that may depend in part on what you live; the loudest voices for the road are from Southside, the loudest voices against it are from outside the region.

The argument for the road goes like this: The present U.S. 220 from Martinsville to the North Carolina line is a twisty, turny road that effectively creates a bottleneck for traffic between southern Virginia and the Greensboro metro area. “I’ve driven it at night,” says Del. Danny Marshall, R-Danville. “It’s a little hairy.” (I’ve driven it by day and will concur that it’s a little hairy then, too.) Says Jim Frith of Frith Construction in Martinsville, one of the leading advocates for the road: “It’s a roller-coaster ride but not a happy roller coaster ride.” He also ticks off a list of the ways the 7-mile stretch of 220 from Martinsville south to the Carolina line is a chokehold: It’s got four stoplights and one school zone and, at some points, the speed limit drops to 45 mph (until you get to the school zone during school time, when it drops further). “It’s a royal mess,” he says. Driving north, “you come out of this nice straight road in North Carolina and then there’s this choke.”

Here’s why that matters: Martinsville and Henry County may be part of Virginia politically, but economically they are part of an economic region that’s really based in North Carolina. That’s not me saying that; that’s geographer Garrett Nelson of Dartmouth College and urban planner Alasdair Rae of the University of Sheffield in Great Britain. Four years ago, they did some fancy data crunching to redraw state lines if they were based on how the economy works (largely through commuting patterns) and not whatever they’re based on now.

They found that Virginia was split among five different economic regions:

  1. Northern Virginia (south to Fredericksburg) and the northern Shenandoah Valley are part of a larger Washington-Baltimore economic “mega-region.”
  2. Everything from Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro east to Richmond and Hampton Roads is part of another economic mega-region, largely based around Interstate 64.
  3. Eastern Tazewell County, mostly around Bluefield, is really joined with West Virginia economically and is part of a larger region that goes out into Ohio.
  4. Southwest Virginia, up until about Galax and Wytheville, is part of a region that’s economically connected with eastern Tennessee and eastern Kentucky.
  5. The remainder – starting at about Galax and Wytheville in one corner, and the Alleghany Highlands on another corner, and then bringing in the Roanoke and New River valleys, Lynchburg and most of Southside – is economically tied to a region that runs into North Carolina to Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Raleigh-Durham and on to the Outer Banks.
Here’s what the United States would look like if its states were redrawn along economic lines. Courtesy of “An Economic Geography of the United States.”

Mind you, this isn’t based on their opinions; this is based on data about how goods and services and people move around. When we look at it this way, a lot of things become clearer, sometimes uncomfortably so. Most of the region covered by Cardinal News isn’t economically connected to Richmond or Northern Virginia, it’s more closely aligned with Knoxville or Greensboro or Raleigh. (See? I’ve been telling people in the rest of that state that we out here feel estranged from the rest of Virginia. Here’s some economic data to prove it.) Viewed through this lens, the potential importance of the Southern Connector becomes easier to understand. Martinsville and Henry County are economically connected with North Carolina; they’re just not physically connected very well, and that hurts the local economy.

Henry County Administrator Dale Wagoner frames it this way: “North Carolina has built Interstate 73 right up to our back door, but our community’s economic access to it is strangled by the last few miles of U.S. 220 in Virginia. Completing the Southern Connector Route is a strategic investment to overcome the decades-long population and economic growth downturn. Building the highway here will boost our intermodal access, be an incentive for economic development to bring jobs here, and help reverse dismal population numbers. The Southern Connector will connect our two major industrial parks to the North Carolina highway system at the intersection of the significant East/West route of U.S. 58. Henry County has made tremendous strides in changing the trajectory of our economy. We have focused our economic development efforts on good-paying, advanced manufacturing careers. Industries want to know that they can quickly bring their raw materials to Henry County and efficiently distribute their products to the rest of the world. The Southern Connector will do that.” Another way to put it would be to say that the Southern Connector is a missing link of sorts between Virginia’s east-west road system of U.S. 58 and North Carolina’s road system. With the Southern Connector, “You’ll have free-flowing safe roads all the way through the county,” Frith says. (Virginia seems to have given up on the idea of building Interstate 73). 

Marshall says the Southern Connector isn’t just important to Martinsville and Henry County, but to all of Southside. In Pittsylvania County, the 3,528 acres of the Southern Virginia Mega Site sit waiting for some big employer to land. Earlier this year, the site came very close; it was the runner-up for an 8,100-job plant that Hyundai decided to build instead near Savannah, Georgia, to make batteries for electric vehicles. It’s hard to know all the reasons Virginia lost out – Hyundai said only that the Savannah site was closer to being construction-ready. However, that Savannah site also sits next to an interstate highway, something Southside doesn’t have. “When economic development groups are looking at you, there’s a checklist and one of the checks is an interstate highway,” Marshall says. In the absence of one, Southside tries to talk up U.S. 58 as the next best thing. “When you look at the highway around Danville, it’s not designated as an interstate but it has all the bells and whistles – limited access and so forth. That helps.” But that lack of a good road connection between Martinsville and North Carolina hurts. If someday – or, more likely, when someday – some big employer lands at the Southern Virginia Mega Site, it will need a way to get its product into North Carolina. Getting the Southern Connector in Henry County built, Marshall says, helps make that Southern Virginia Mega Site more marketable.

Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick County, also frames this local road in a global context: “I see this as part of a push to be part of the reshoring capital of Virginia. We were the epicenter of NAFTA when it came to how much industry we once lost.” Now Southside is seeing a renaissance of sorts with advanced manufacturing – most evident in Danville – and the region wants to push that. But not having a good road into North Carolina hurts.

Now for the more difficult part. There’s no money for the road. An environmental impact study has been done (more on that to come) and the preliminary cost of the road is estimated at $745 million in 2020 dollars. The handy-dandy Inflation Calculator says that would now be $852.93 million. That’s almost as much money as Virginia allocated statewide in the last two-year SMART SCALE funding process. Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman Marshall Herman says: “Therefore, the scale of the Martinsville Southern Connector project would likely require an additional and/or alternative funding source in order for FHWA [the Federal Highway Administration] to issue a Record of Decision to complete the EIS process and allow VDOT to advance with more detailed designs and procurement.”

So where’s that money going to come from? That’s essentially the same problem that bedevils the Coalfields Expressway.

Southern Connector advocates feel some sense of urgency. The environmental impact study was completed in 2021 but expires in three years if there’s no funding, Frith says. Meanwhile, the federal government has lots of money to spend under the new infrastructure bill. “I’m hoping all the stars will align where we can get the federal infrastructure funding and the state funding,” Williams says. (Yes, there’s some irony in Republicans looking for funding from the infrastructure bill that most Republicans in Congress opposed, but let’s set that aside.) Of those two, the more important might be the state funding. “The state has to lead,” Frith says, “the federal government may help.” Put another way, why would the federal government spend money on a project the state won’t get behind? (This is one of the challenges confronting the Coalfields Expressway, too.) 

Not everyone is as excited about the prospect of the Southern Connector as the local political and business community is.

In a statement two years ago, the Southern Environmental Law Center, based in Charlottesville, called it “wasteful and destructive.” Senior attorney Trip Pollard went on to say the road “is unnecessary, would increase sprawl and carbon pollution while destroying carbon sinks, and is a poor use of taxpayer dollars.” A subsequent story in the Virginia Mercury focused on the wisdom of building a road in a part of the state that’s losing population: “In a shrinking part of Virginia, VDOT is still planning a highway expansion.”

Here is where we come to a philosophical conflict. Road advocates say that the Southern Connector is necessary to boost the region’s economic prospects and, as the Henry County administrator says, “reverse dismal population numbers.” (The 2020 census showed Henry County’s population down 5.9%, Martinsville’s down 2.4%). Road critics say those numbers “strengthen their arguments that the connector would provide meager benefits for a high cost,” according to the Mercury.

Road advocates talk about economic growth. Road critics talk about the environment: “The project’s last EIS anticipated direct impacts on 21,882 linear feet of streams (including 60 stream crossings), 3.7 acres of wetlands, 7.5 acres of 100-year floodplain, and 10.8 acres of 500-year floodplain,” the Mercury writes. “Its construction would also require clearing nearly 300 acres of farmland and 224 acres of forests, including 54 acres identified by the Department of Conservation and Recreation as areas of ‘high’ ecological integrity.”

Further, the Mercury points out that “25 households would have to be relocated – nine of which would take place within minority environmental justice communities.”

Viewed like that, this is a classic case of jobs versus the environment – a throwback of sorts because these days a lot of environmental causes, such as renewable energy, are increasingly promoted as being good for both the environment and the economy. I don’t want to get crosswise of environmentalists but I will make my customary geographic observation: Here we have a group based in Charlottesville, where the median household income is $59,471, opposing a project deemed an economic development opportunity in a county where the median household income is $37,952. Does no one feel queasy about that? That just doesn’t seem a good look to me; it makes environmentalists come across as elitists, no matter how well-meaning they might be. The environmental considerations are real, to be sure, but those arguments would go over better in Henry County if they came accompanied by some alternative economic plan to attract manufacturing jobs. Is there some environmentally friendly plan to fix U.S. 220 south of Martinsville in a way that better connects the region to North Carolina’s economy? Please don’t just identify the problem, let’s hear a solution. 

Here’s my attempt, which, admittedly, doesn’t address the basic environmental concerns (and might even exacerbate them). When Trump was president and pushing his border wall idea, a consortium of engineers and scientists led by Purdue University looked at an alternative idea: What if there was a “linear energy park” along the southern border – a mix of solar farms, wind farms, desalination plants and so forth. The rationale: Unlike a mere wall, this energy park would generate energy that would help bring economic growth to both sides of the border. And, like a wall, it would act as a deterrent to people simply walking across the border because all energy facilities need security. Same result as a wall, but with the bonus of creating energy – and without the image problem of the land of liberty walling itself off. The Purdue consortium concluded that a linear energy park would, indeed, work.When I wrote recently about the Coalfields Expressway, I suggested that proponents there look to this concept as a way to help attract funding that otherwise wouldn’t be forthcoming.

I’ll offer up the same idea here. I’m no engineer, but there may be more potential for such an idea along the Southern Connector route than along the Coalfields Expressway: The land is flatter and Henry County is already attracting some solar development, part of a broader solar boom across Southside. There are legitimate concerns about how much farmland is getting converted to what some see as a quasi-industrial use. What if some of that solar development in Henry County was channeled to the Southern Connector route on the theory that the land there will be taken out of agricultural production anyway? Meanwhile, the New College Institute in Martinsville is becoming a center for training wind energy workers – see this story by Randy Walker. Is there some wind potential along this route? Would such a linear energy park make the region more attractive to certain types of employers – companies that, for instance, manufacture components for the solar and wind industries? What if the roadway could become a testbed of sorts for their products? None of that helps those who don’t think a road should be built at all, I realize, but it might broaden the conversation beyond the usual build/don’t build arguments.

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.